You’ll have heard the joke about the two sailors who found themselves marooned on a desert island until one of them stumbles across a lamp and the genie therein offers them one wish each.
Naturally enough, the first asks to be whizzed back to his wife and family at home and he duly disappears in a puff of smoke. The remaining sailor looks around him, immediately feels a bit lonely and asks the genie to return his pal to the island forthwith.
Italy are getting lonely and would be delighted if they could magic Scotland back on to their Six Nations island because the Azzurri have been cast adrift from the rest of the pack and things never look quite so bad when you have a mate to keep you company.
Sad to say but Scotland and Italy have been bosom buddies for much of the Six Nations. In seven of the last ten they have shared the bottom two spots. Only in 2016, Vern Cotter’s second Six Nations, did the Scots start to put clear blue water between themselves and the Azzurri. Scotland finished fourth, above France and Italy, and they repeated the trick last year, ending fourth again, on the same number of wins and points as Ireland in second.
They are trying to ditch their long-term dance partner but the Italians won’t walk away without a scene. They always believe they can beat Scotland, especially in Rome, and they will up the intensity at the Stadio Olimpico today in an effort to salvage something from this miserable season.
This Italian side is a little more constructive in the way they play; they score tries, though not as many as they concede, and in full-back Matteo Minozzi they boast a natural finisher. They would have a better chance today if injury hadn’t claimed two other principle threats, Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto.
Conor O’Shea has plucked Jake Polledri from Gloucester’s back row (dad Peter played for Bristol in the 1980s) to help counter Scots poachers at the breakdown but it’s a big ask for a Test debutant.
Italy will win their set piece ball and they will attempt to drive Scotland back in the maul but it is difficult to see them succeeding in an area where England, France and Ireland largely failed. Italy will target the diminutive Nick Grigg as the new kid on the block, especially close to the Scottish line, and the coaches will have given special licence to every outside back to pick off Finn Russell’s speciality miss-pass if they get the sniff of an interception because, hey, that tactic won them the game back in 2007 as Chris Cusiter has no doubt done his best to forget. Italy may even score a couple of tries because the Scots defence has been reasonably generous but there is nothing that we have seen so far this season, from either side, to suggest anything other than a 20-point game.
It hasn’t been easy but Scotland are slowly shaking Italy off their coat tails, having won eight of their last nine meetings. In the last four of those Tests the winning margin has averaged 27 points. “We know this will be a tough game,” said Gregor Townsend. He is right to be cautious, England were clearly complacent when they arrived at Murrayfield, but that will only happen today if Scotland let their standards slip and Townsend has rung the changes to head that horse off at the pass.
He talked about the “management of energy” and you can understand why. After four Tests over the course of six weeks bodies are bruised and minds are tired from the constant cycle of train-eat-analyse-train-eat-sleep that this tournament demands. Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray, two former shoo-ins, big characters and big men, will bring plenty of energy to the bench even if the men they replace, Simon Berghan and Grant Gilchrist, have reason to feel aggrieved. That the coach can drop that pair suggests a greater depth to Scotland’s resources than at any time in the professional era.
Today’s XV looks like it is selected to play with the ball in hand and with pace. While the Scots kicked ten times more than England did, I suspect we will see a different tactic today; a typical Townsend team, high tempo, attacking from all corners of the compass, countering from Tommaso Allan’s big boot and, when they do opt to put boot to ball, going for length and avoiding the sidelines. If they play to potential, Scotland will be too good.
There is only one team that can beat the Scots today, it isn’t Italy, and by the close of play Townsend’s men should have edged a little further from their erstwhile amici.